The proposed changes to the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of 2019 further dilute protective provisions, putting the ecology and vulnerable communities in ecologically sensitive zones at risk, writesGAURI ANAND.
ON November 1, the Government of India, in exercise of its powers under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, issued a notification regarding proposed changes to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification 2019 . The 2019 notification assigned certain coastal stretches as Coastal Regulation Zones, and imposed restrictions on the setting up and expansion of industries, operations, and processes in these zones. Since its conception, the notification has been modified 35 times, and iterated twice. However, the last few amendments have been aimed at diluting protective provisions to allow commercial activities in sensitive zones to promote “economic growth”, putting the ecology and vulnerable communities in these areas at risk.
Now, the Union Government is proposing to further dilute it and make changes to the regulations in pursuance of representations it received from state governments and the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MoPNG) through the Director General of Hydrocarbon (DGH). The government has sought to make a number of changes including:
(i) Delegating the powers of granting CRZ clearance to the State Coastal Zone Management Authorities and state governments for small infrastructure projects located in CRZ-I and CRZ-IV areas;
(ii) Exempting exploratory drilling and associated facilities thereto, except CRZ-I A areas, from the scope of CRZ regulations;
(iv) Allowing the removal of sand bars by traditional communities under the provisions of the CRZ Notification 2019; and
(v) Make factual corrections to clause 10.2(iii) of the 2019 notification.
The two-month public consultation period to consider the proposed amendments comes to an end next week, on December 31. During this period, any persons interested in making any objections or suggestions on the proposals contained in the draft notification may send such comments for consideration by the union government, to the Secretary of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
CRZ-I areas have been defined as ecologically sensitive and important areas, and include “national parks/marine parks, sanctuaries, reserve forests, wildlife habitats, mangroves, corals/coral reefs, areas close to breeding and spawning grounds of fish and other marine life, areas of outstanding natural beauty/historical/heritage areas, areas rich in genetic-diversity, areas likely to be inundated due to rise in sea level consequent upon global warming and such other areas as may be declared -by the Central Government or the concerned authorities at the State/Union Territory level from time to time.”
The 2019 amendment further classified these areas into subcategories based on ecological significance and protection requirements.
Exploratory drilling has the potential to cause environmental damage including degradation of soil, soil pollution, pollution of surface and underground water, and atmospheric pollution, among others. The separation and exemption of exploratory drilling from CRZ clearances in the proposed amendment is concerning, since it goes against all obligations of the government to protect the environment.
CRZ-I A comprises ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs) and geomorphological features that play a role in maintaining the integrity of the coast. These include mangroves; corals and coral reefs; sand dunes; biologically active mudflats; national parks, marine parks, sanctuaries, reserve forests, wildlife habitats and other protected areas under the various wildlife, environment, and forest protection Acts; salt marshes, turtle nesting grounds, horseshoe crabs’ habitats; sea grass beds; nesting grounds of birds; areas or structures of archaeological importance and heritage sites.
CRZ-I B comprises intertidal zones, i.e., the area between low tide and high tide lines.
CRZ-IV areas are coastal stretches in the Andaman & Nicobar islands, the Lakshadweep islands, and small islands except those designated as CRZ-I, CRZ-II or CRZ-III.
The 2011 notification makes it clear that the purpose of designating CRZs is manifold, i.e., ensuring the livelihood security of fisher communities and other local communities; to conserve and protect coastal stretches, its unique environment and its marine area; and to promote development through a sustainable manner based on scientific principles.
The most recent notification proposes that exploratory drilling operations shall be exempted from prior CRZ clearance in the CRZ-I B (ecologically sensitive areas) and CRZ-IV (intertidal zones) areas, and expands permissible activities to include the development and production of oil and natural gas and all associated facilities thereto. It seeks to replace the text “Exploration and extraction of oil and natural gas and all associated activities and facilities thereto;” with “Development and Production of oil and natural gas and all associated facilities thereto; Exploratory drilling operations shall be exempted from prior CRZ clearance.”
Exploratory drilling has the potential to cause environmental damage including degradation of soil, soil pollution, pollution of surface and underground water, and atmospheric pollution, among others. This separation and exemption of exploratory drilling from CRZ clearances in the proposed amendment is concerning, since it goes against all obligations of the government to protect the environment, and instead prioritises its economic interests. It also runs contrary to the very stated purpose of the regulations.
Natural disasters along the coastline have cost India over USD 80 billion in the last two decades, and this number is only set to increase. The country also lost 235 square kilometres of land to coastal erosion between 1990 and 2016.
Interestingly, this notification was issued on the same day Prime Minister Narendra Modi made commitments to reduce India’s carbon footprint at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conferencein Glasgow. In a move that explicitly favours private entities, a few days before this notification, ONGC was asked to give away 60 per cent stake as well as operating control in India’s largest oil and gas producing fields of Mumbai High and Bassein to foreign companies. Earlier this year, ONGC was also directed to sell its stake in producing oil fields, such as the Ratna R-Series, to private firms.
It is relevant to note that in May this year, the government attempted to facilitate the legitimization of illegal industries operating in CRZs. The Bombay High Court stayed a procedure introduced by the MoEFCC that would allow it to provide ex post facto clearance to projects that had already begun operations along the coastline without first obtaining mandatory clearances.
The State has now justified the recent proposal by referring to requests by the MoPNG, indicating pressure from the oil and gas industry. That such interests supersede environmental concerns is not surprising given the government’s recent track record when it comes to mining and exploration at the cost of the environment.
The 2019 notification requires that all permitted or regulated project activities attracting the provisions of the notification obtain CRZ clearance prior to their commencement. The proposed regulation, of course, makes provisions to accommodate the recommended changes and provides special dispensation to activities mentioned in the newest notification.
Furthermore, it exempts certain activities from the requirement of obtaining CRZ clearance from the MoEFCC based on the recommendation of the concerned Coastal Zone Management Authority. Standalone jetties, breakwaters, groynes, salt works, slipways and manual erosion control bunds will now be dealt with by the Coastal Zone Management Authority or the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) if the project attracts the EIA Notification, 2006. Keeping in line with existing timelines for the approval process under the regulation, these projects will have to be considered for clearance within 60 days from the receipt of the complete proposal from the proponent.
Construction activities related to projects of the Department of Atomic Energy or for defence requirements will continue to be regulated by the MoEFCC.
The notification allows for the removal of sand bars from intertidal areas by traditional coastal communities only using manual methods and subject to permission from state governments, specifying the time period and specific quantity. It also states that only local community persons who have been registered to remove the sand will be allowed to do so.
Funnily enough, it appears that at this stage, there is more robust regulation for the manual removal of sand bars than for exploratory drilling for oil and gas through the use of heavy machinery.
The coastal region is home to approximately 170 million people. As a result of climate change and unplanned and unregulated development projects, India’s coasts have been under increasing threat, and these at-risk coastal communities have been struggling to survive. Every year, changing climate, rising sea levels, erosions, and natural disasters such as cyclones displace millions living along the coast. Natural disasters along the coastline have cost India over USD 80 billion in the last two decades, and this number is only set to increase. The country also lost 235 square kilometres of land to coastal erosion between 1990 and 2016.
Given the disproportionate effect of natural disasters on communities that are already at-risk, that the government is looking to further ease regulation on commercial activities in designated sensitive areas is frightening. Not only will unregulated exploration disrupt the ecology of these areas, but it will increase the risk of seismic implications and environmental damage, further endangering human lives and coastal and marine biodiversity.
In 2019, 90 per cent of the objections received from fishing communities, environmental groups, and citizens, were disregarded while a decision was made on the new CRZ notification.
We have to stop behaving like the extraction and production of fossil fuels does not have serious consequences in the short and long term. What is necessary at this time is to focus on capacity building, preparedness and mitigation, rather than to wait and formulate post-disaster responses after the damage has been caused. A stringent coastal policy that focuses on the original objectives of coastal regulation, i.e., to conserve and protect, is the need of the hour.
In 2019, according to an IndiaSpend investigation, 90 per cent of the objections received from fishing communities, environmental groups, and citizens, were disregarded while a decision was made on the new CRZ notification. It is disheartening that citizens are being reduced to helpless spectators while our common heritage is being plundered by those entrusted to preserve it. As the consultation period for this most recent notification comes to an end, one can only hope that enough voices are heard, and that the interests of all stakeholders are taken into consideration, and not just those of government coffers and of the oil and gas industry.
(Gauri Anand is an environmental lawyer and part of the research and editorial team at The Leaflet. The views expressed are personal.)